How can you flee the flu?

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— If you've been too busy to get a flu shot, you might want to consider whether you can spare a week or two to battle the fly.

Five to 20 percent of Americans are sidelined with the flu every year; some develop severe complications such as bacterial pneumonia, dehydration or worsening of conditions they already have such as heart disease, asthma or diabetes. Much more than an inconvenience, the flu sends about 200,000 Americans to the hospital every year and claims 36,000 lives.

The best thing you can do to protect yourself and those around you is to get a flu shot every year. Flu season typically runs from late December through March, but the prime time for vacation is early - during October and November - before the bug has a chance to establish itself. If you haven't had your shot yet, however, it's not too late. If you get vaccinated today, you'll be protected within two weeks.

Early reports indicate a slow start.

Through late November, only 82 of more than 13,965 laboratory specimens tested for influenza virus were positive. Thirty states reported no influenza activity.

Attacks respiratory tract

Influenza, or the "flu," is caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory tract - the nose, throat and lungs. It's similar to the common cold, but symptoms that are much more severe - fever, headache, muscle aches and a feeling of being totally wiped out. Although people talk about the "stomach flu," if you have diarrhea or vomiting, you probably have something else.

While a cold may cause you significant misery, the worst is usually over within a week or 10 days. With the flu, the symptoms may linger and get worse. Those most at risk of complications are people with chronic diseases that compromise the immune system.

In addition to the flu shot, which made with killed viruses, there is a nasal spray made with live, weakened flu viruses. Both are effective, and neither vaccine will cause the flu in someone who doesn't have it, although they may bring about some minor symptoms such as soreness, a low-grade fever and minor aches and pains during the first few days. It takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop.

Early in the season and particularly when vaccine supplies are limited, as they were in 2004, priority is given to people at high risk for complications:

• Anyone older than 65, and particularly those with chronic medical conditions.

• People living in long-term care facilities.

• Patients with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes, kidney disease or a weakened immune system.

• Women who will be pregnant during the flu season.

• Children 6 to 23 months of age.

In addition, anyone in close contact with a high-risk person - including health care workers and home health aides - should be certain to have an early flu shot.

Even if you're not on the high-risk list, you can and should get vaccinated. Shots are readily available for about $30 at work places, retail establishments and health centers in most communities. The cost is covered by Medicare Part B and many health insurance plans.

The only people who should not get a flu shot without consulting a physician are those with a severe allergy to chick eggs and those who developed a severe reaction or Gullain-Barre syndrome following a previous flu vaccination. Children under six months should not be vaccinated. And if you're sick with a fever, you should postpone getting a shot until you're feeling better.

There are three main types of flu virus - A, B and C - but does not ordinarily pose a threat since those who have had a type C flu are immune for life. There are numerous variants of types A and B, however. Type A, which constantly changes, is responsible for most severe outbreaks.

The vaccine contains three viruses - two type A variants and one type B. The viruses included change each year, according to worldwide surveillance and scientists' estimates about which types and strains will be most prevalent.

Once you've been vaccinated it's possible to get the flu, but unlikely if you're otherwise healthy. Elderly people with health problems who get the flu are likely to have less severe symptoms if they've had a flu shot.

Other measures you can take to protect yourself from the flu and other respiratory ailments include:

• Steering clear of people who are sick.

• Staying home yourself when you have coughing, sneezing, runny nose and other symptoms.

• Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and then throwing that tissue away.

• Washing your hands with soap and water frequently.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, particularly after you touch something that could be contaminated. A virus can live for two hours or longer on a doorknob or other surface.

If you've been exposed to the flu virus, it takes one to four days for symptoms to appear. You'll be able to infect others starting one day before you show symptoms and for an additional five or six days after you become sick. Children and people with reduced immunity may be contagious for an ever longer period.

Because it's viral in origin, the flu will not respond to antibiotics unless it's been complicated by a bacterial infection. As with a cold, treatment often involves treating the symptoms with rest, fluids and pain medications.

The FDA has approved four antiviral drugs for the treatment of the flu: oseltamivir (Tamiflu), rimantadine (Flumadine), amantadine (Symadine, Symmetrel) and zanamavir (Relenza). If taken within two days of becoming sick, these drugs can reduce symptoms, shorten the illness by a day or two and make you less contagious. Amantadine, rimantadine and oseltamivir are also approved for the prevention of the flu. They have been found 70 to 90 percent effective in healthy adults.

By far the best approach is to get your flu shot every year. A Swedish study concluded that flu vaccination reduced overall deaths among elderly people by 15 to 20 percent during each flu season.

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